If World War III Comes, Blame Fish
Naval gunfire over underage turbot
The conventional wisdom has it that democracies don't start wars. Putting the usual worries about Greece and Turkey aside, that's a soothing thought. But perhaps in the post-cold-war world the conventional wisdom should stop preoccupying itself with traditional notions of war and conflict and start thinking about fish.
Because fish are the reason that Russians are shooting at Japanese, Tunisians are shooting at Italians and a lot of people are shooting at Spaniards. That's just a partial list of the heated conflicts that are occurring on the high seas between aggressive fishing fleets and well-armed navy and coast guard vessels that are jealously protecting a lucrative and declining resource.
Last week three Thai trawlermen were reportedly shot dead by Vietnamese maritime authorities. In another recent clash, two Spanish fishermen were injured last month when a Portuguese patrol boat used gunfire to force their vessel to ditch its nets and flee into Spanish waters. Portuguese officials were unmoved by the charge of excessive force. "Perhaps it was a ricochet," deadpanned a Portuguese naval commander.
At their simplest, the fish wars are about too many boats and too few fish. Fisheries are a classic example of the economic dilemma of a commonly held resource. Nations have no incentive to conserve on their own, because their competitors will simply swoop in and plunder the excess. The 1982 Law of the Sea treaty tried to address this problem by giving coastal nations jurisdiction over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that extend up to 200 miles offshore. But some gaps between EEZs coincide precisely with some of the world's most productive fishing grounds (map, Page 60). The multinational fishing derbies that result from these anomalies--known by such whimsical names as the Sea of Okhotsk "Peanut Hole," the Bering Sea "Doughnut Hole" and the Barents Sea "Loophole"--have led to heated clashes between fishing fleets and local navies determined to prevent overfishing. The zones around disputed territories, such as the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, also are a magnet for conflict.
Factory fishing. As global fisheries continue to decline, the range and aggressiveness of the global fishing fleet grows. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully fished, overfished, depleted or recovering. Since an explosion from 3 million tons at the turn of the century, the annual marine catch appears to have stagnated at around 80 million tons in recent years.
That leaves too many boats competing for the same fish. Between 1970 and 1990, the world's fishing fleet nearly doubled, to more than 1 million large vessels and 3 million total. Modern fishing boats are loaded with an array of sophisticated fish-finding sonars and trawl nets that can pull in tens of tons of fish in a single haul. Most analysts agree with the FAO that half the number of vessels would be sufficient to catch the same number of fish. Throw in the fact that declining stocks have sent fish prices soaring--a single tuna sold for $67,500 in 1992--and that fishing is a $70 billion-a-year business ($10 billion in exports for the developing world), and you begin to understand why fishermen are shot at with surprising regularity. Last year, disputes with Thailand over illegal fishing practices in the Andaman Sea led to the murder of at least three Burmese fishermen. In response, Burma closed the only open border checkpoint between the countries and demanded millions in compensation.